Many years ago, with a minivan full of restive kids in need of distraction, I asked them all to tell a joke. In the midst of the silence, my young daughter piped up with a knock-knock riddle I’d made up: “Knock, knock!” she said. “Who’s there?” the rest of them replied, “Margaret Thatcher!” she said. “Margaret Thatcher who?” they wanted to know. And then she delivered the punch line: “Margaret, that ‘yer nose, or are you eating a banana?”

The joke had gone over well as meta-humor with revelers at a recent St. Patrick’s Day party, but I didn’t blame these kids for not laughing; they found only the association of the nose and the banana funny. A joke at the expense of the former Prime Minister of Great Britain went nowhere because none of the kids knew that Great Britain had a Prime Minister, what a Prime Minister was, or for that matter, what this joke might have to do with somebody named Margaret Thatcher. At minimum, jokes need a shared context to succeed.

Here’s a much earlier case in point of cultural change draining humor. If you look up Joe Miller’s Jests, a joke book that became a runaway bestseller in the American colonies, I can guarantee that you won’t laugh. In fact, the jokes will baffle you.

Try reading this one out loud to a friend:

There being a very great Disturbance one Evening at Drury-Lane Play-House, Mr. Wilks, coming upon the Stage to say something to pacify the Audience, had an Orange thrown full at him, which he having took up, making a low Bow, this is no Civil Orange, I think, said he.

Anybody laughing? Anybody know now why anyone then would laugh?

Travel two centuries further back, and the problem gets even worse. In his play Twelfth Night, the great William Shakespeare entertained audiences with a pair of drinking buddies, the sharp witted sot with a funny last name, Sir Toby Belch, and the butt of Sir Toby’s practical jokes, his sidekick Sir Andrew Aigucheek—whose surname now isn’t funny at all. To get the joke you’d need to know that “ague,” an antique term for an intermittent fever, caused its pallid victims to run hot and cold. And that’s pretty much what happens to feeble old Sir Andrew as his roguish friend Toby sets him up with a beautiful girl and incites him to duel with a fierce swordsman.

Explaining a joke never makes it any funnier.

Getting back to the future and the car ride with the kids, it occurred to me that the problem with the failed joke might not have suffered from a simple lack of preparation and familiarity. Perhaps the problem was with the joke itself—that this form of humor was rapidly aging.

We happened to be passing a cemetery at that moment, so I decided to teach one of the jokeless riders a question-and-answer gag: one of the oldest and simplest. “Here’s one you’ll like,” I said, pointing to the monuments. “How many people are dead in there?” Nobody knew. So I said, “All of them!” Laughs? No. Puzzled looks instead. Thinking that retelling the joke would be the best way to appreciate it, I pointed to the little girl riding next to me. “OK Abby, you try it,” I said. “How many people walked in there and died?” she offered.

Jokes fall flat not just because of the natural waning of familiarity and context but also because the rhythm of our humor and our laughter has changed—and so too its cooperative nature

Library of Congress/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Library of Congress/Wikipedia Commons

This is not to say that we laugh less; in fact, we may laugh more than ever. But we laugh differently. Cultural changes alter the basic psychology of humor.

The first big change is that humor has migrated from the ear to the eye. Where Mr. Wilks was able to raise a laugh merely by employing elaborate language, we swap visual jokes now at a distance. You’ve seen the internet videos of a can-do rat dragging a pizza slice, or of a lamb frolicking inside, from room to room. Or of a group of beefy Norwegian body builders cramming into a play house. LOL!

The second important change is the way public comedy now substitutes disbelief for surprise. In public performances, we now tend to laugh at bare truths and frank language that in ordinary public space would be received as impolite and improper and not “safe-for-work.” But in the special, playful, permissive atmosphere of comedy clubs, audiences prepare themselves for routines that riotously explore the boundaries of propriety. If the audiences were unruly during the heyday of the Drury Lane Theater, it’s performers who now lose control. Consider the comedic stylings of Margaret Cho, a Korean American comedian who merrily transgresses taboo territory in race and sex and in the process makes it the formerly taboo territory of race and sex. Watching her television comedy special last weekend, I laughed plenty. But I didn’t hear one joke, not as such.

By contrast, old fashioned joke-tellers actively told (and tell) contrived old jokes as the shortest of short stories—little narratives overfilled with labored, playful puns. “Polar bear walks into a bar and says, ‘er, ah, I’d like a, an… umm…’ Bartender says, ‘Why the long paws?” Compare a more complicated exchange from the Marks Brothers 1933 masterpiece, Duck Soup. Groucho, who’s presiding at Chico’s trial, says, “I suggest we give him ten years in Leavenworth or eleven years in Twelveworth.” Chicolini settles for “5 and 10 at Woolworth.” Eight decades later, their joke still delivers anticipation and surprise, pleasurably. And it’s no wonder; before the film, the boys had tweaked the joke for bigger laughs before paying audiences on the road night after night.

To measure the salient psychological change and emotional shift since the Vaudeville era, though, let’s translate Groucho’s joke into modern comedy club vernacular. A modern Groucho might turn to the audience and say, “Let’s slam this gre$*b@#%l m*+#@%&#*r into a Superf&^$&^*Max.” In the modern version, profanity becomes the joke by sacrificing wit and nuance, again, as we’re likely laughing as much at disbelief as at surprise.

Freed from context, some comedy endures: we can’t help laughing at a pie thrown in the face, and possibly we’d even laugh at a lobbed orange, civil or otherwise. But context still reigns. Modern stage comedy would baffle even disorderly audiences at the old Drury Lane Play-House. Human nature can seem unchanging and immutable, but the way we laugh shows that as our history changes, our psychologies change.

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